Human Interest
With no actual environment or social impact study being done, Nityanand Jayaraman writes the points he would raise had he been one of the farmers losing land.
Villagers protest as authorities lay markers on their land

On June 11, 2018, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways notified its intent to acquire 1306 hectares (3227 acres) of land for the proposed 8-lane Salem-Chennai Highway in Thiruvannamalai district through a Gazette Notification as per the National Highways Act.

Any person interested in the said land can file their objections within 21 days with the Special District Revenue Officer (LA), National Highways, Villupuram.

It is expected that similar Government Orders (GOs) will be issued for other districts through which the road intends to pass. The objections have to contain the grounds for opposition.

Given that most farmers came to know about the project only after the heavy-handed arrests during land measurement and survey, it can be reliably said that people still do not have any information on the pros and cons of the project.

If I were a farmer whose lands were sought for this hare-brained project, I would be sorely disappointed with the manner in which the government is going about its business. But my disappointment is immaterial. What matters now is whether I convey my objections to the Special District Revenue Officer within the prescribed 21 days, and what my letter contains.

I am not a farmer. But if I were, here's the letter I would write:

Dear government,

I am one of thousands of farmers who stand to lose land for the proposed 8-lane Salem-Chennai Greenfield Highway. This is my letter of objection in response to the Gazette Notification S.O. 2377(E) issued by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways on 11 June, 2018.

I wanted to, but I am not going to tell you about the relationship that a farmer has with her land. Nor am I going to tell you about how when the land is taken away, a part of the farmer will forever be dead, and the farmer and her family will never be the same again. The land is eternal. Your compensation, no matter how handsome, will be exhausted in no time.

Recently, when a big factory was shut down for polluting the earth, people talked about how jobs would be lost and worried about what India would do for its copper needs. I know that your calculus does not require you to worry about how many livelihoods will be lost when farmlands are swallowed by this highway. I know that you will not wring your hands in despair about what India will do for its food needs if it continues to divert arable lands for industrial and infrastructure projects.

I will not tell you all this because I feel you have already made up your mind. You will dismiss such objections as the rantings of a sentimental farmer. Instead, I will tell you how the way you are going about acquiring land is inherently illegal and malafide in intent. Here are ten reasons why I object to the acquisition of my land for the 8-lane project.

1. I have no awareness about the project, its alignment or its pros and cons. I have simply been asked to give up my land without being offered any reliable information about the project.

2. I have no awareness about the social or environmental impacts of the project. Your project may only take a portion of my or my village's land, but its environmental and social impacts will be felt well beyond the boundaries of your proposed alignment.

3. A Feasibility Report has been prepared for the project. But that report fraudulently concludes that the project is feasible. It wrongly justifies further action and investment of time and resources in the project.

4. Social and environmental viability are integral to the overall feasibility of the project, as social acceptability (or opposition) can make or break projects. The Feasibility Report falsely claims that it is based on a thorough assessment of the financial, technical and economic justifications of the project, and that the social and environmental viability of the project has been confirmed by carrying out Preliminary Environmental Assessment and Initial Social Impact Assessment.

5. The Feasibility Report falsely states that public consultations have been carried out at the village level, including with potential land-losers like myself, and at the district level, as part of the Social Impact Assessment. No data about the consultations, such as the date of consultation or the names of villages where such consultations happened, have been provided.

6. Neither I nor farmers in my village have never been approached, leave alone consulted, about our response to the project. Had they done so, our objection to the project and the grounds for the same would have reflected in their project report.

7. The Feasibility Report also claims to have concluded that this alignment is the most suitable one. But such a conclusion is baseless as the report contains no data that suggests that a rigorous analysis of alternatives, including of expanding existing alternate routes, has been carried out.

8. The current acquisition is being carried out under the National Highways Act, and not the Central Land Acquisition, Resettlement & Rehabilitation Act 2013. As a landowner, it does not matter to me whether the land is acquired by one authority or another. What matters is whether the process is humane, participative, informed and transparent. The latter Central Act of 2013 provides for such a humane, participative, informed and transparent process through its mandatory provisions requiring Environment and Social Impact Assessment, and securing public consent.

The current acquisition under National Highways Act is not humane, participative, informed or transparent. It is therefore violative of Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees equality before the law. By failing to go through the procedures of environmental and social impact assessment and the requirement of gaining informed consent of stakeholders, the current acquisition under National Highways Act fails to meet the minimum standards set out by the Central Act of 2013, and falls afoul of Article 14 of the Constitution.

9. The process of determining the feasibility of the project and the prevalent Land Acquisition Act of 2013 both require the carrying out of Environmental and Social Impact Assessment. Further, the project cannot anyway commence without an environmental public hearing, which also cannot happen unless an Environmental Impact Assessment and Social Impact Assessment is prepared. The legally binding "Guidelines for Environmental Impact Assessment for Highways Projects" published by the Indian Roads Congress states that one of the main purposes of EIAs is to "provide necessary information for making decision whether the project is necessary from environmental angle or not". The failure to conduct an EIA and SIA before land acquisition is malafide, and designed solely to deny the benefits of prevalent laws to project affected persons.

10. The government has not made a convincing case that the project is in public interest, that existing alternatives are not viable, or that this project is viable. Further, it has based its actions on a malafide and fraudulent Feasibility Report.

For these reasons, the current land acquisition proceedings must be dropped.